When the ACLU Betrayed Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the Left

Eighty years ago today, the leadership of the ACLU voted to expel labor radical and founding member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for her Communist Party membership. It was a stunning capitulation to red-baiting — and a reminder that liberal-radical alliances are often a tenuous thing.

Hubert Harrison, seated left, and Industrial Workers of the World leaders Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood, seated right, organized the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. (American Labor Museum)

On May 7, 1940, the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) assembled at the City Club of New York on West 55th Street. The purpose of the meeting: to decide whether to expel charter member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on grounds that her membership in the Communist Party (CPUSA) disqualified her from serving on the governing body of a civil liberties organization.

The idea that Flynn’s involvement in the CPUSA compromised her commitment to First Amendment freedoms was ludicrous. Her credentials as a civil liberties activist were unmatched by anyone on the board, rivaling even those of ACLU founder and executive director Roger Baldwin. Since 1909, when she led the first of three free speech fights as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, Flynn had been a dedicated advocate for free expression, freedom of the press and assembly, and the right to a fair trial for all labor activists, regardless of political affiliation. In 1937, while she was a member of the ACLU Board of Directors, she joined the Communist Party. With full knowledge of her CPUSA membership, the board unanimously reelected Flynn to a three-year term in 1939.

But early in the morning of May 8, after a lengthy debate, the board voted to expel the longtime radical.

The Expulsion of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

That the ACLU would violate its own foundational principles to impose a “guilt by association” judgment on a member of its governing body, especially one whose career demonstrated unwavering commitment to those principles, seems preposterous. Just a year earlier, the ACLU had published a pamphlet, “Why We Defend Free Speech for Nazis, Fascists, and Communists,” which declared: “The Union does not engage in political controversy. It takes no position on any political or economic issue or system … It is wholly unconcerned with movements abroad or with foreign governments.”

But then in February 1940, the board reversed course and adopted a controversial resolution that effectively barred communists from serving. That resolution read, in part:

The Board of Directors and the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union . . . hold it inappropriate for any person to serve on the governing committees of the Union or on its staff, who is a member of any political organization which supports totalitarian dictatorship in any country, or who by his public declarations indicates his support of such a principle.

In the category of organizations supporting dictatorships the resolution included “organizations in the United States supporting the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union and of the Fascist and Nazi Countries (such as the Communist Party, the German-American Bund and others); as well as native organizations with obvious anti-democratic objectives or practices.”

Upon passage of the resolution, Flynn, the only Communist on the board, declared her intention to remain and force the organization to remove her. ACLU board president Harry F. Ward stepped down in protest. In his resignation letter, Ward chastised board members who supported the resolution for “attempting to create an orthodoxy in civil liberties, and stranger still, an orthodoxy in political judgment upon events outside the United States.”

Not surprisingly, mainstream newspapers like the New York Times supported the resolution. In response to charges that the ACLU had trampled upon on its own tenets, the editorial board opined, “It is dangerous sentimentality to let them bamboozle liberal groups into inconsistent and impossible positions. There is an issue of freedom in the world and in the United States, and the American Communists have chosen the side of slavery. Let them abide by their decision. Liberty and communism don’t mix.”

So why did the ACLU do a 180 on the “guilt by association” question? Cowardice in the face of red-baiting. In the late 1930s, as hostility toward Communists intensified, liberal members of the board increasingly worried that the organization’s radical connections were a liability. During 1939 hearings of the recently created House Committee on Un-American Activities, witnesses identified the ACLU as a Communist front organization.

Fearing this label would irreparably damage the organization’s reputation and efficacy, a group of liberals sought to purge Communists. Led by Morris Ernst, an attorney later revealed to be collaborating with J. Edgar Hoover, the group also included socialist Norman Thomas and Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes. All three of the men were former allies of Flynn who had praised her work on behalf of the labor movement. The Nazi Soviet Pact in 1939 steeled their determination to oust her from the ACLU.

None of these men personally brought the charge against Flynn. That task was delegated to Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, a Scripps-Howard journalist. ACLU director Roger Baldwin chose Bromley because he thought it would look better to have a woman initiate the expulsion proceedings. The ensuing debate lasted over six hours. Transcripts of the meeting, which were not publicly available until nearly thirty years later, reveal a defiant Flynn, undaunted by the accusations against her, unassailable in her defense of her nearly half-century record on civil liberties, and unafraid to call out the hypocrisy of her accusers.

I object to a “loyalty oath”; to penalizing opinion; to the injection of issues or attitudes on foreign governments and policies; to the abandonment of the honored traditional position of the ACLU and to the substitution of political orthodoxy for the political heterodoxy which distinguished our Board. The demand for my resignation is an attempt to force a minority to conform to the political view of the majority or get out. I refuse to resign because I will not be a party to saving the face of this anti-civil liberties majority nor to whitewashing their red-baiting. I am appealing to the real ACLU elements against such a demand. If this trial occurred elsewhere, it would be a case for the ACLU to defend! This charge violates every principle we fought for in the past. Unless the ACLU returns to its original position, its future record is likely to disgrace its past. I have a moral duty as a charter member of the ACLU, to fight against this danger and to maintain my status.

The strength of Flynn’s response is all the more remarkable considering the personal circumstances surrounding the proceedings: she was facing betrayal by people with whom she had struggled arm-in-arm for decades just two months after losing her only son, Fred, to lung cancer at the age of twenty-nine.

After her testimony, Flynn was asked to leave the meeting. Deliberations continued until just after two the next morning, and Flynn was ultimately expelled on a 10–9 vote. Adding insult to injury, no one bothered to call Flynn and inform her of the outcome. She found out at an informal meeting afterword with a group of board members at the nearby Algonquin Hotel.

The ACLU resolution that resulted in Flynn’s ouster has been called a turning point in the alliance between liberals and radicals. But it was much more than that. The ACLU’s actions profoundly shaped the United States’ political landscape, with trade unions, youth groups, and civic organizations around the country passing similar resolutions. The practices and ethical standing of the ACLU itself were seriously compromised as well: the national office began checking with J. Edgar Hoover to see whether various individuals were members of the Communist Party.

The ACLU’s willingness to capitulate to red-baiting by purging its ranks rendered the organization’s criticism of other groups for doing the same ludicrous. It is no stretch to say that the ACLU resolution of 1940 and the purging of Flynn from the board fueled anticommunist hysteria and helped lay groundwork for the second Red Scare and McCarthyism by giving the liberal seal of approval to the doctrine of “guilt by association.” If the ACLU could persecute its own founding members for no reason other than their political associations, who or what was there to stop the FBI or McCarthy?

The damage done by the artificial distinction between “dissent” and “subversion,” which the ACLU’s actions established and which defined a culture of political repression in the United States in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, could not be rectified by the organization’s reinstatement of Flynn in 1976.

Since the Flynn debacle, the ACLU — the most important civil liberties advocacy group in US history — has floundered on other occasions. The War on Terror is a case in point. In 2004, the organization was found to be screening employees against terrorist “watch lists”; in 2006, the board was considering rules that would bar members from speaking publicly against the organization and disparaged whistle blowing. But nothing compares to the ouster of Flynn, either in terms of internal contradictions or external ramifications.

Lessons for the Contemporary Left

In US political discourse, “the Left” is often used to denote anyone who is not a Republican, from supporters of Hillary Clinton to anti-fascist activists. In truth, neoliberals, even those who identify as Democrats, are not members of the Left. In the best of times, the actual left is an alliance of left-liberals and radicals.

The ouster of Flynn from the ACLU underscores the tenuous nature of this alliance. In particular, it suggests the extent to which liberals are open to compromising their ideals and turning on radicals when the political landscape shifts.

That willingness to compromise is evident right now as we see the erstwhile champions of civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights, meaningful health care reform, and climate justice turn into apologists for a political candidate whose policies and actions on these vital issues range from terrible to nonexistent. They openly berate radicals for being unwilling to sacrifice their aim of a more just, equitable society in the interest of returning to a pre-Trump status quo.

Flynn’s treatment by the ACLU similarly illustrates the dangers of “lesser evilism.” Trapped between the evils of a sustained and open attack by anticommunist forces in the federal government or a cowering retreat from their own political principles, the board of directors of the ACLU chose the latter.

They should have stood their ground. They might have paid a price in the short term. But in the end, the price we all paid was much higher.